29 Nov 2019

"The Capelin are Rolling"

"The capelin are rolling". That's what the lady in the fluorescent vest answered when we asked her what all the excitement was about. She was preventing cars from entering the already-full parking lot at the cove. Like a hundred others, I had parked along the highway and walked back to the cove.

I had an idea of what capelin were: little silvery fish. Ten days earlier on our trip to Newfoundland, the skipper of our tour boat to Witless Bay had said "You folks are lucky. We're going to see whales. There were no whales here until a few days ago when the capelin showed up and the whales follow and feed on the capelin". But I had no idea what "rolling" meant.

It turns out that "rolling" means that millions of capelin come in to shore to spawn on the beaches. This happens only once a year for a few days. And the locals come in to scoop up the capelin in nets or any handy container. It's a happening scene. You only have to wade into the ocean up to your ankles to scoop up buckets of fish. People of all ages were happily gathering dinner and walking off with shopping bags full of fish. It's quite a defining moment for local culture.

The capelin are rolling at Middle Cove, just north of St. John's

Dead capelin littering the beach
Anyone can scoop up capelin with a net

Buckets and shopping bags full of capelin

But the capelin are significant for more than a fascinating local cultural event. Capelin feed on plankton.  Other animals, including whales, puffins and cod, feed on capelin. So capelin are a critical link in the food chain. And capelin stocks have been declining. In 2018 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced a 70% decline in capelin population. The population is only 25% of what it was in 2014, and that was much smaller than before a population crash in the 1990's!  My first thought at seeing people scooping up the fish was that this must be a threat to the capelin stocks.

But no: most of the fish die anyway right after spawning, so harvesting them then does little to the population. And, anyway, people aren't walking off with more than a few tonnes of fish in their buckets and shopping bags. Somewhat more significant is the commercial catch. Surprisingly, the DFO increased the commercial fishing quota from 17,500 tonnes in 2018 to 18,600 in 2019.

Hard to believe from this picture, but commercial fishing is a minor predator
Why? The scientists at DFO believe that the decline is due more to environmental factors than to fishing, and consider the fishing to be a very minor factor in influencing the population size. They estimate that fin fish alone eat a million tonnes of capelin (and whales and seabirds are also significant predators).

The World Wildlife Fund disagrees with DFO and calls the increase in fishing quotas "short-sighted". Who's correct? It's not clear - there are so many factors involved that accurate forecasts of population are impossible. But maybe you should plan a trip to Newfoundland soon if you want to see the capelin rolling.

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